Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), sometimes called the “Dutch Mona Lisa,” has more in common with Leonardo’s masterpiece than the fact that it is also a beautifully rendered bust of a European girl. Like the original Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s portrait has been so widely circulated through art history that it’s nearly impossible to see the work as an image. All it can be is an object of adoration.
If you forget this, the way the painting is installed in the High Museum’s Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis will remind you. Segregated in its room and installed within a kind of altar—hung higher than other works in the show—Vermeer’s Girl is not meant to be merely looked at; it’s meant to be revered.
Shows like this can be tricky for museums and audiences alike. How does one look at something so old and so familiar in a fresh way? How do we see what’s really there without the crust of 350 years of expectations getting in the way?
In the Cliff’s Notes version of art history, Western art is seen mostly as a matter of competence. It’s the story of painters and sculptors becoming more and more skillful at reproducing the visible world around them. (At least until the aesthetic bomb blast of Romanticism was detonated, sending the shrapnel of Modernism flying at everyone’s head.)
This abbreviated history doesn’t hold up even under the mildest scrutiny, but it has been astonishingly tenacious as a way of looking at and judging art since the theory was first advanced by Renaissance writers. I suspect that’s why so many of the 35 paintings in the current exhibition Girl with a Pearl Earring still dazzle three to four hundred years after they were made.
The exhibtion covers what has come to be known as the Dutch Golden Age of painting, a period spanning the last three quarters of the 17th century, roughly corresponding to the rise of the Dutch Republic. Many of the illuminating figures of that Golden Age—Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Johannes Vermeer—are represented. The exhibition encompasses nearly every major category of painting from the period: landscape, still life, portraiture, history, and genre painting (scenes from daily life), all on loan from The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, in The Hague.
As the Renaissance writers predicted, these Golden Age painters emerging a century or two later, unlocked the key to realistically rendering the natural world. Willem Heda’s Still Life with a Roemer and Watch (1629) is nearly a miracle. The glimmers of light against a pewter dish, a lemon rind, and a glass half full of water feel not just transcendently beautiful, but also correct in the most mundane sense of the word. You can feel confident that, yes, that’s what things really look like.
A similar confidence takes hold standing before Jan Steen’s extraordinary painting The Oyster Eater (1658-1660). This tiny gem (8 1/8 x 5 ¾ inches) presents a young girl flirtatiously meeting the viewer’s gaze while salting an oyster accompanied by bread and wine. The objects in the painting are not so much arranged as they are displayed. The silver tray, the prepared oysters, the spices: Everything is presented for the viewer’s uninterrupted view as if in a sales catalog.
The painting even contains a blue and white delft-style pitcher, a nod to the Netherlands’ global trading empire, then near its zenith. The pitcher is not direct from China like the best examples of the time (the silver lid depicted means it’s a local knockoff or at best an adulteration of a Chinese original). But any piece of blue and white pottery still conferred upon its owner a certain air of worldly sophistication.
The paint is so expertly manipulated in Steen’s work that each surface—velvet, fur, silver—is recognizable for its unique tactile qualities; the particular behavior of each in response to light falling on it. In the typical net, or neat, style of the Leiden painters of the time, scarcely a brushstroke is visible.1
Rachel Ruysch’s explosive Vase of Flowers (1700) pays the same degree of attention to natural light. Tulips, white roses, and other blooms burst in dramatic color against a dark background. The textures of the various flower petals and leaves are all intimately rendered with a dramatic chiaroscuro. Much of the foliage is dead or dying, a further testament to the picture’s realism. This painting, too, contains a nod to the empire: the tulip bulbs. (Although by 1700, tulips were a familiar feature across the Netherlands, they had only recently been imported from Turkey as a rare and exotic bit of flora.)
Of course, little of what’s depicted in these paintings is “real” in the sense that they transcribe life directly as witnessed by the painter and captured as found. Every object in Heda’s still life is arranged for the purpose of creating the right shadows and reflections to produce the most dazzling visual effects. A common method in flower paintings of the period was to include various blossoms that would all have been in bloom at different times. Few of those flower arrangements could have existed in real life. And Emanuel De Witte’s Interior of an Imaginary Catholic Church (1668) also in the exhibition is just that: imaginary.
If the Renaissance theorists were right, then we should believe that these kinds of paintings were in some sense inevitable, that sooner or later artists would get the visible world right and a Dutch still life would be the result. But that story overlooks what may be most intriguing about the work: that painting from the Dutch Golden Age is a fiction that aims not to be accurate, but to be convincing. It’s novelistic, not documentary.2 The realism of the Dutch masters isn’t just the result of a natural evolution but an aesthetic choice that helped a new nation create a story about itself and its place in history.
In 1585, King Philip II, the Catholic King of Spain, sent his armies to occupy Antwerp, northern Europe’s undisputed center of art production. Fearing for their lives and their immortal souls, waves of Protestant artists and intellectuals fled to the northern Netherlands cities of Delft, Utrecht, Haarlem, and Amsterdam. They brought with them one of the most advanced artistic technologies of their time, Flemish oil painting, but freed it from the yoke of the church. Within two decades, the first paintings of the Dutch Golden Age began rolling out of artists’s studios.
The rise of Dutch Golden Age painting paralleled the rise of the Netherlands as the preeminent global economic power of the 17th century. A robust trade in tobacco, sugar, and African slaves to and from the Americas, and porcelain, spices, and other goods to and from the East (all of it supplemented by a significant amount of state-sanctioned piracy) transferred staggering wealth from the Caribbean, Brazil, Africa, and Southeast Asia back to the Netherlands.
Illegal at the birth of the Dutch Republic, slavery ultimately became the engine that powered the Dutch economy of the 17th and 18th centuries.3 Indeed, the Dutch trading empire pioneered the modern form of race-based, chattel slavery we’re familiar with to maximize productivity on the sugar plantations of Brazil and the West Indies. Slavery was not an unfortunate side note to the development of the Dutch Golden Age, it was the central economic fact that made two centuries of prosperity possible.
The unprecedented wealth that flowed from new world sugar and old world spices was crammed into an area not much larger than the state of Maryland. An entire subgenre of literature exists in which foreign visitors recount their shock at the nation’s material abundance and good living. René Descartes called the Netherlands “an inventory of the possible” in 1631 while living in Amsterdam. In 1660, visiting Briton William Aglionby called The Hague “the most pleasant place in the world” and judged Amsterdam to be “much superior in riches” to Venice— Europe’s standard-bearer of high rolling cities.
Johan Maurits, a military leader, governed northern Brazil during six of its most productive years in the middle of the 17th century at the behest of the Dutch West India Company (1636-1642). During his tenure, Maurits had not one but two palatial residences built, including one in The Hague. Maurits’s house (or Mauritshuis in Dutch) became known as the “House of Sugar,” an epithet derisively referring to Maurits’s personal profiteering from Brazil’s sugar economy and the 20,000 slaves whose importation he managed. His home in The Hague was later converted into a museum to hold the Vermeers, Steens, and other Dutch national treasures now on tour.
The overflow of wealth also produced a middle-class art market, something that barely existed elsewhere in Europe. In the major cities, it was common to find oil paintings, etchings, and engravings in all but the poorest homes. A Calvinist republic, the church was not in the business of sponsoring art. Neither was the aristocratic class, which was much smaller than elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps unique on the continent, painting in the Netherlands was a thoroughly merchant-class affair. And the art reflected the secular themes that class cared about: hearth and home, the land, and images of the good Dutch life.
That the good Dutch life was underwritten by a global system of conquest and slavery was not lost on Dutch citizens, the rank and file of whom generally found slavery morally objectionable, but whose benefits proved too tempting. When Dutch slave-trader Willem Bosman wrote to his uncle in Holland in the 1690s, he suspected that the slave trade would seem “very barbarous to you,” but cited that economics demanded that “it must go on.”
Because the Dutch relationship with the earth and the rest of the world was changing so fast, landscape painting became an especially potent innovation of the period.
In prior painting, landscapes served almost exclusively as the setting for the religious and human dramas unfolding within them, which makes Jacob van Ruisdael’s empty countryside in View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds (1670-1675) so remarkable: Here, the drama is the land itself—or, more precisely, the Dutch experience of inhabiting the land. The clouds are the main event—not a Madonna, not a crucifixion—making up more than two-thirds of the painting’s composition. Diagonal formations serve as incidents for the play of light with abrupt shifts from ominous gray to luminous white. The diagonals flatten out toward the horizon, creating a kind of zoom effect that van Ruisdael never tired of. The play of light is mirrored in the patches of dramatic sunlight and shadow on the ground.
Even more stunning, Renaissance experiments in perspective reach a climax here. Earlier artists constructed space like stage scenery, as a series of essentially flat planes arranged front to back. But van Ruisdael ‘s space recesses gradually and irresistibly toward the horizon in a single, unified system. His is a secular vision of space: predictable, extensible in any direction, subject to rational regulation. In van Ruisdael’s space there is always a way to get from here to there.
And that’s not so in Medieval and Renaissance art. What mattered there was the intellectual unification of disparate ideas—Bethlehem, the lord’s manor, the people’s salvation, Calvary. Everything could be brought into the same picture plane in a single revelatory moment, proceeding vertically between earth to heaven. Thus the 14th century mind saw nothing strange about the idea that Mary would be dressed as a 14th century Tuscan maiden. The painting was a cosmological description of all time, not a rendering of a specific moment in history.
In the Dutch Golden Age, that vertical sense of time turned into a horizontal sense of space.4 What mattered here was actually occupying and moving through real territory in real time. That’s the difference between a secular vision of the earth and a religious one. In the secular world of the senses, nothing counted that was not visible to the eyes or touchable with the hand. This secular vision was endorsed by an art-buying merchant class that understood itself as part of the collective nation and global-empire-building project.
Art historian Simon Schama found, in his landmark interpretation of Dutch Golden Age culture The Embarrassment of Riches, that Dutch Golden Age art was “saturated” with signs of death and decay. He asserted this was evidence that the new Dutch nation was endlessly nervous about the unimaginably-immense fortune it amassed in under 40 years. I think the word “saturated” overstates the case. The skull in Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas Still Life (1630) or the dead leaves and insects in Ruysch’s bouquet are grace notes in art that, in every other way, celebrates the beauty and wealth of the material world. But the anxiety is real: The culture that pushed back the North Sea to reclaim a land below sea level and conquered the Atlantic Ocean to build an empire had become afraid of, in Schama’s words, “drowning in luxury and sin.”
The Dutch painters of the 17th century developed a way of seeing that had become resolutely empirical, unmatched in its ability to mimic the visible world. They created a uniform spatial system and filled it with tokens that helped instruct a nation on how to be Dutch. But in the process they gave up all the intellectual resources that made Medieval and Renaissance art spiritually legible. They lost the ability to contemplate a whole and integrated world in exchange for rendering small, high-fidelity, sensory-rich pieces of it. Not until the early 20th century with Mondrian and Van Doesberg did the Netherlands produce painters who reinvented a universal world beyond the senses.
It matters little that the earring worn by Vermeer’s Girl is ludicrously large and can’t possibly have been real. Art historians agree that Vermeer exaggerated it, rendered it as a pearl from some other kind of jewelry, or perhaps made it up from scratch. The intensely physical world Vermeer confronted still seems familiar to the modern sensorium. But the glimmer of the Golden Age shows that the world of visible shadows, reflections, and surfaces is as meaningful for what it hides as for what it reveals.
1 The picture’s rounded top and net technique seem to me at least inspired by if not directly quoting Steen’s fellow Leiden painter Gerrit Dou. The smoothness and size of The Oyster Eater are starkly opposed to Steen’s typically large and loose format but entirely consistent with Dou’s oeuvre. Finally it seems impossible that two leading painters working in the same city born 13 years apart and with friends in common (Frans van Mieris was Dou’s student and Steen’s drinking buddy) would not know each other’s work.
2 For comparison, note how the Impressionists sought to do exactly the opposite. Their paintings were not meant to be convincing in the sense that they fool the viewer into mistaking the world on canvas for the natural world, but they are meant to be accurate in that they capture the real and fleeting impressions of the world as it happens.
3 As late as 1596, slaves captured by a Dutch pirate on a Spanish or Portuguese ship could count on being set free at the earliest opportunity or even given control of the captured ship. But by 1604 Dutch merchants were filling orders for slaves on Spanish plantations in Trinidad, and by 1675 the Dutch had a legal monopoly on the transatlantic slave trade, although in practice that monopoly was unenforceable.
4 By the time of Rembrandt’s history painting in the 1630s, the problem of how to convincingly portray Biblical narratives and still appeal to the modern viewer had become a conscious problem. Thus painters had to strike a balance between what they imagined to be “authentic” costumes and period settings with those that a contemporary audience would recognize in order to understand the scene. The same problem exists today, which is why every generation’s cinematic reinterpretation of Christ’s crucifixion always looks like it belongs irrevocably to the generation that created it no matter how authentically “biblical” it looked at the time.
Cinqué Hicks is an art critic based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is currently senior contributing editor of the International Review of African American Art, and during 2012 he served as the interim editor-in-chief of Art Papers. A graduate of Harvard University’s compartative literature program, Hicks also holds a master’s degree from Georgia Tech, where he studied digital media art. Since 2011, he has served as the founding creative director of Atlanta Art Now and is co-author of its first biennial volume, Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape. From 2008 to 2012, Hicks was an art critic, arts writer, and columnist for Creative Loafing, and he continues to write for a variety of national and international publications including Public Art Review, Art in America, Artforum.com, and Artvoices.
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